Saturday, June 19, 2021

Prejudice and Equality (2006)

From the June 2006 issue of the Socialist Standard

Knowing the history or etymology of a word does not always tell anything about its current usage or meaning. Silly, for instance, used to mean ‘blessed’, but that is just irrelevant to the way it is used now. Sometimes, however, a word’s origin or structure can be quite revealing. Prejudice, for instance, means ‘pre-judge’: to form an opinion about a person or idea or thing in advance without the benefit of a proper understanding.

A prejudice may well involve categorising someone in a particular way, perhaps just because of their appearance: they may be black, Jewish, female, gay, shifty looking, ‘foreign’, or whatever. They may be wearing clothing which suggests that they are a Muslim, or a shirt of a football team you dislike, or just a hoodie. Or you may hear them say a few words and decide that you don’t think much of their accent. In all these cases, a person is being judged – and perhaps dismissed or ignored – by being seen as a member of some group of people, rather than as an individual. Such a prejudice might be justified by saying that ‘they’ are all lazy or untrustworthy or potential terrorists, or just not the sort of person you want to be in any way associated with.

Stereotyping along these lines is one of the foundations of prejudice and bias.Ideas like racism and sexism are not respectable these days, and most people will deny being prejudiced – if you think you aren’t, try the online test at NEW LINK

Prejudice may be merely a matter of dislike, but when it influences the way you behave and leads to some disadvantage for the other person, then that’s discrimination.
Someone may be denied a job for reasons quite unrelated to their ability to do it, or they may be refused service in a shop, or made to wait in a queue. And there are far worse things, too, such as racist murders or attacks on anyone who belongs (or appears to belong) to some demonised group. Capitalism is full of examples of prejudice and discrimination. Gender and race have been the most obvious examples, with women being confined to the home, earning lower wages than men, having fewer educational opportunities, being subjected to domestic abuse, and so on. People with dark skins have been treated as less than human, enslaved, confined to the worst housing and worst jobs, lynched and brutalised. The Nazi onslaught on Jews and many other groups, such as Slavs and Roma, is probably the most notorious and despicable example.

Where there is a problem, capitalism often sees the chance of a reform, designed to alleviate some of the worst excesses and make it look as if the system and those who run it care about the most downtrodden. So there is now plenty of legislation against discrimination. For instance, the Equality Act, which came into force earlier this year, covers discrimination on the grounds of religion or belief, sexual orientation, gender, disability and race. Yet it illustrates the point that government legislation cannot in itself change people’s attitudes. Many Christians who run bed-and-breakfast establishments have objected that they can no longer ban ‘undesirables’ from their premises: gays, satanists, Muslims, even other brands of Christian – all may be viewed as not the right kind of person (Observer 26 March).

But it’s not just a matter of likes and dislikes. So often prejudice and discrimination under capitalism can be traced back to competition, for jobs, houses or government handouts. If ‘they’ come over here and take jobs that belong to white workers, then unemployment among whites could be reduced or eliminated by sending ‘them’ back or at least by putting them at the end of the line for jobs. The housing problem would surely be far less serious if ‘they’ were not allowed to jump the queue for council houses. Some group of people can be selected as scapegoats who are blamed for all the ills of society: unemployment, homelessness, crime, violence, insecurity, poverty. Tragically, workers who suffer from these problems will often put the blame onto fellow workers, who in fact may well be even worse off than they are.

Not all prejudice can be said to be caused by competition. Religious bigots, such as the christian B&B owners, can introduce their own forms of intolerance, backed up by nothing more than a dislike of anybody who is in some way different from themselves. And ideas can change, however slowly. Gays and lesbians, for instance, rarely have to keep their sexuality secret nowadays (though in plenty of countries this is not the case). Discrimination against disabled people is far less widespread than it once was. But of course, nobody could pretend that racist ideas are a thing of the past.

And there is one form of discrimination that cannot disappear under capitalism, because it is built in to the system’s very bones. This is discrimination on the grounds of wealth and power: a relatively small number of people have a great deal of both, while the vast majority (the working class) have little of either. It’s only workers who have to worry about discrimination in terms of jobs and housing: if you live off profits and have several luxury apartments and a country mansion, then you hardly need to worry about not being ‘one of us’. Equalising pension arrangements for men and women doesn’t affect you if you’re a millionaire whose post-‘retirement’ standard of living will barely take a cut.

The Socialist Party’s Declaration of Principles claims that a Socialist society will involve ‘the emancipation of all mankind, without distinction of race or sex’. In a world where competition for housing and jobs is no more, where all take an equal part in producing for need and running society democratically, it will be  absurd to suggest that any kind of prejudice could still exist. Maybe we will still form first impressions of a person we meet, but that will be based on their own character and behaviour, not on lumping them in with some ill-defined grouping.

Being a Socialist implies opposition to all kinds of prejudice and a determination to treat people as equals and as individuals.
Paul Bennett

Cooking the Books: Towards an economic crash? (2006)

The Cooking the Books column from the June 2006 issue of the Socialist Standard

“Imbalances ‘pose risk of recession’” ran a headline in the Times on 28 April. The US has a “huge” balance of payments deficit “heading for 7 percent of national income this year”, explained another article. “In turn, Asia has built up vast current account surpluses and foreign exchange reserves”.

The balance of payments is basically the balance between payments coming into a country from the sale abroad of its exports (visible and invisible) and payments going out to pay for its imports (visible and invisible). A deficit exists when imports exceed exports. To pay for exports from the country, dealers in other countries have to acquire the country’s currency while importers into the country have to acquire foreign currency. If a country has a balance of payments deficit, the demand for its currency will be less than that for foreign currencies, so its currency will tend to fall in value (whether through formal devaluation or through floating downwards). The opposite will be the case for a country with a balance of payments surplus; the value of its currency will tend to rise.

Given the US payments deficit and the Asian countries’ surplus, what would normally happen is that the dollar would fall and the Asian currencies rise in value. That this has not happened yet to any great extent is because the countries involved find the present situation to be in their interest. The Asian countries, especially China, with their undervalued currencies benefit from being able to export more (because the price of their exports is lower than it would normally be, making them more competitive), while the US benefits from the Asian countries using part of their surpluses to fund the US government by lending it money (through purchasing its Treasury Bills).

There is a general recognition in international capitalist circles that this situation cannot continue indefinitely – that, sooner or later, in one way or another, the exchange rate adjustments must take place. The big question is how. The ideal solution of “a relatively stable adjustment”, according to Mervyn King, the Governor of the Bank of England appearing before the House of Commons Treasury Committee, would be for this to “happen gradually over ten years in fits and starts”.

But he went on to outline another possible scenario:
  “You can certainly imagine cases where the sharp fall in exchange rates could well lead to a fall-off in financial stability, and start to lead to a disorderly adjustment which could be very costly and might involve recessions in some countries”.
Some critics of capitalism are arguing that this is what is inevitably going to happen (for instance, Loren Goldner in an article predicting an “inflationary blow-out”). This is certainly a possibility, as King admits. But it is not inevitable. King’s other scenario for a “relatively stable adjustment” is also a possibility.

Monetary matters are the froth and bubbles on the real economy. Even so, mismanaging them can provoke an economic crash that might not otherwise occur. But mismanagement is not inevitable. Slumps are only inevitable when caused by movements in the real economy.

Exhibition Review: Modern Times (2006)

Exhibition Review from the June 2006 issue of the Socialist Standard 

‘Modernism 1914-1939: Designing a New World’, Victoria & Albert Museum, London, until 23rd July, £9 adults.

This is an engaging, varied and well structured exhibition put together by the V & A, focusing on ‘modernist’ approaches to architecture, art and the application of science between the wars. The exhibits, ranging from paintings and posters, through to recreated designs and excerpts from film shows like Fritz Lang’s Metropolis and Chaplin’s Modern Times, are suitably and accurately described throughout, generally being set in an appropriate theoretical context.

Although modernism was a varied and dynamic movement, its central themes were an important part of early twentieth century life. In particular, the search for human improvement (if not perfectibility) through the application of the scientific method, rationalist approaches to problem solving and the consideration for human progress that permeated art and architecture, were important milestones in the history of capitalism. With modernism, they probably reached their fullest expression so far.

Some sections examine the link between modernism and concepts of social and political utopia, particularly those emanating from the workers’ movement, and others invite consideration of how authoritarian regimes in Russia, Germany and Italy either enthusiastically used – or reticently accommodated themselves to – modernist precepts.

The work of modernist artists such as Mondrian and architects such as Le Corbusier are stunning and prominently featured, along with subsequent applications of their work. Indeed, it is evident (and telling) just how often the design innovations and imaginative approaches of such individuals were limited or distorted by a social and economic system with its own imperatives and strictures, from giant ‘social housing’ projects to the commercialisation of art.

Not everything that came out of modernism was commendable by any means – the ‘Taylorism’ of the modernist factory production line being a particularly mixed blessing. But it is interesting to imagine how a socialist society – which could have been far more closely aligned to the general modernist approach – might have utilised and applied modernist ideas and techniques for the benefit of humanity. In fact, it is difficult for a socialist to take a tour of the exhibition without thinking this at almost every turn.

By the early twentieth century, the capitalist system had developed a worldwide division of labour and sufficient productive capacity for a socialist society built on abundance to be viable as a possible alternative to it. In this sense, capitalism had become politically obsolete. But at a social and technological level, modernism in this period represented both the struggle to transcend and improve capitalism at the same time, to ensure that forward-thinking, scientific and structured methods were applied for the improvement of society. In the absence of socialist revolution, this took the form (even if by default) of trying to renew or perfect commodity society for the perceived needs of humanity.

In many respects, this represented the apogee of conscious, coherent planning and scientific application within capitalism. Thereafter, it influenced post-war reconstruction before being buried by the eclecticism, anti-rationalism and general scepticism towards grand projects for human advancement typified by the anti-scientific backlash of ‘postmodernism’.

Today, postmodernism represents the incoherence and chaos of a capitalist society that has spurned systematic attempts at social improvement, being a product of the commodification and isolation of everyday life, with the attendant breakdown of social relationships and coherence this has involved.

For all its faults, modernism represented a hope for a brighter future through the search for collective human improvement by scientific, rationalist methods and planning. In rejecting this, postmodernism has since confirmed capitalism’s inability to progress in a sustained and coherent manner, and is symbolic of its general descent into impotent micro-politics, disorder and the intellectual void.
Dave Perrin

50 Years Ago: The Mosley Movement Today (2006)

The 50 Years Ago column from the June 2006 issue of the Socialist Standard

British Fascism’s New Look

1932 saw the birth of the “British Union of Fascists,” with their black shirts and uniforms, armoured cars, their provocative marches through the East End of London, and their Mass rallies. To-day, over 20 years later, the movement is still with us. They still hold out-door meetings, and recently Sir Oswald Mosley, held a number of indoor meetings in Birmingham, Kensington, Brixton, and elsewhere. True, it does not have the membership it had in the ‘thirties. No longer are members allowed to wear uniforms.

Since the war, when over 800 of its members spent a number of years in prison, the movement has been re-organised and renamed. The B.U.F. is now “Union Movement.” The word “Fascism” has – for the time being? – been dropped; no doubt because of its unpopularity. But the British Fascists continue to call themselves “Blackshirt.” At the London County Council Elections 1955, their candidates in Shoreditch and Finsbury urged electors to “Vote Blackshirt.” And “Wake ’Em Up at County Hall.”

“Union Movement” retains its pre-war “Flash” sign on its literature, banners, flags and badges.

To-day we no longer see “British for the British,” or “Britain First,” chalked or whitewashed on walls; although such slogans as “Slump or Mosley,” or the letter “K.B.W.” (Keep Britain White) can sometimes be seen in Kensington, Hackney, Brixton, and elsewhere.

“National Socialism,” the phrase under which the German Nazis operated, has given way to Mosley’s latest: European Socialism”—yet another contradiction! British Fascism wears a New Look!

(From an article by “PEN”, Socialist Standard, June 1956

Greasy Pole: Panic Aboard ‘SS New Labour’ (2006)

The Greasy Pole column from the June 2006 issue of the Socialist Standard
A strategically timed withdrawal from government need not ruin a political career
If Tony Blair had been an officer on board the Titanic it is quite likely that, as the liner subsided into the icy sea, he would have occupied himself in re-arranging the seating on the deck. In that way, he might have hoped to convince the richer and more influential passengers that he was taking action to compensate for the design flaws which had made the ship so sinkable. This may even have persuaded the Cunard Steamship Company to overlook the fact that he had failed to notice the iceberg which ripped open the ship’s hull while he was on watch. But that’s quite enough on maritime disasters; what about this latest reshuffle in the government? (Of course “reshuffle” is another felicitous word – using the same dog-eared set of cards with the same paltry values but flicking them out in a different order hoping for a change of luck).

When it comes to political parties like New Labour “luck” means government ministers being able to give the impression that their control over capitalist society is such that that they can neutralise causes of concern like crime, sickness and pollution. If they can parade statistics which support their self assessment of the effect they have, they are rated as a success and can look forward to promotion to other, more important and more attention-attracting, jobs. But if they can’t provide those statistics they face the sack. And if the government as a whole are in a crisis of inability there is liable to be a tidal wave of sackings, washing away some prominent politicians and encouraging the impression that we are ruled by a fresher, more energetic, government.

This was how it was with Harold Macmillan’s “Night of the Long Knives” in 1962, when the supposedly unflappable Prime Minister was so panicked by some spectacular by-election defeats that he fired,  among others, his Chancellor of the Exchequer and odd-job man Selwyn Lloyd.

There have been similarities between Macmillan’s panic and Tony Blair’s recent blunder into the minefield of political reality in conflict with party imagery. Among the prominent victims of Blair’s reshuffle was Charles Clarke, the third in a succession of Home Secretaries who have all pledged to cure crime with a mixture of symptom repression and social surgery. Before he became Home Secretary Clarke, living down his reputation as a fiery student leftwinger, held a succession of increasingly important posts. He became Education Secretary after Estelle Morris had resigned – or sort of been sacked – because she could not keep up with the job. Clarke, who obviously could do the job, put down his marker as a convert to the opponents of a range of traditional Labour policies when he supported the concept of specialist secondary schools and argued that state funding should not be available for “unproductive” humanitarian research. In case there was any misunderstanding he also said that “Universities exist to enable the British economy and society to deal with the challenges posed by the increasingly rapid process of global change.”

Which at least signalled that he had grasped the proper role of schooling in capitalism’s competitive, commodity-based system without any nonsense about developing individual talents. And to drive the point home he introduced the Bills which established topup university fees – even although his party’s election manifesto had solemnly promised not to do this. Clarke had to be one of the favourites to succeed David Blunkett when the latter finally had to give up being Home Secretary. This must have been very satisfying to the one-time Head Boy of the exclusive Highgate School, afterwards President of the Students’ Union at Cambridge, which was a kind of apprenticeship for the job of President of the National Union of Students.

As the Home Office is one of the three big government jobs anyone who gets there might assume they will one day make it to Number Ten. Except that the Home Office is known as a graveyard of political ambition, with quite a few career corpses – like Rab Butler, Roy Jenkins and Douglas Hurd. That fact puts Clarke’s sacking – or rather part-sacking, part–resignation – in another perspective. As Anthony Eden, Harold Wilson and Aneurin Bevan learned, a strategically timed withdrawal from government need not ruin a political career. It is no coincidence that soon after Clarke had left the Home Office he was said to have a promise from Gordon Brown of a prominent job in a future Brown government.

As a canny, long term operator Clarke will be aware that he has to keep an eye on a particular rival – John Reid, his successor as Home Secretary. Since he came into the job Reid has devoted himself, while being careful to formally salute Clarke’s industry and skill in the Home Office, to undermining Clarke’s hopes of reviving his career, by publicising higher and higher figures for the foreign nationals who should have been deported after release from prison. He has recently described the situation he inherited at the Home Office as having “…some very serious and systemic underlying problems…” and there is no secret about who he considers to be the likeliest person to sort them out.

Like Clarke, Reid is a fully paid up member of the Left Wing to Right Wing Tendency. “I used to be a Communist,” he once said; “I used to believe in Santa Claus”. Not that he is averse to a little gift, like in 1993 when, during the Bosnian war, he spent three relaxing days at a luxury hotel beside a lake in Geneva with his friend the indicted war criminal Radovan Karadzic. At home he has keenly supported measures calculated to raise the blood pressure of the most placid Old Labour devotee – like compulsory Identity Cards, top-university fees and the Iraq war. Speaking on plans to introduce the American company Kaiser into the Health Service, he sneered at anyone having doubts about this privatising measure with the hint that they suffer from intellectual rigidity: “I believe that a preparedness to learn and improve is a sign of strength, not of weakness”.

The ex-Education overlord Reid is as well known for his robust vocabulary as for preparedness to refashion his principles; told that he had been promoted to secretary of State for Health he responded: “Oh fuck. Not Health”. So far he has been too busy undermining Clarke’s reputation to let on about how he feels at being Home Secretary; no doubt he was mollified by the fact that, as MP Frank Field put it, he would “certainly” be among those to challenge Gordon Brown for the Labour leadership.

Reid’s enemies (and there are plenty of them) in the Labour Party will be hoping that his intention to unravel the chaos at the HomeOffice will come to grief in face of what Clarke called its “seriously dysfunctional” style of operation, once cursed by David Blunkett as “a culture of incompetence and deliberate undermining of official policy”. Others have had much the same opinion about the Foreign Office and perhaps that was why Margaret Beckett was promoted to take over there – the first ever female Foreign Secretary. Beckett is known (or should that be damned?) as “a safe pair of hands”, which means she can be relied on to bat away any inconvenient questions about Labour’s doomed attempts at efficiently managing British capitalism.

She is another reborn left-winger, who once savaged Neil Kinnock for his refusal to back Tony Blair against Denis Healey for the Deputy Party leadership.On another occasion she deeply upset Joan Lestor (herself no stranger to making massive adjustments in her political standpoint) by accepting Callaghan’s offer of the very job in Education that Lestor had resigned over expenditure cuts. Beckett is well known for her unpretentious demeanour, what with her caravan holidays and her readiness to repair her make-up while sitting chatting in the pub.

But nobody should be deceived that she will fail to represent the international interests of British capitalism for if the ups and downs, as well as the moves from left to right and back again, prove anythingit is her steely resolve to do whatever her job demands.

So these are the new seating arrangements on the deck of the crippled ship. The lifeboats are filling up; being privileged and ruthless helps with getting a seat in them. But there is no prospect that anyone can repair that massive gash in the plates below water. Apart from the few socialists, nobody seems able to offer any idea other than waiting to be picked up by another, equally unhopeful, crew.